Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on Julie’s personal website and is reprinted here with permission.
by Julie Richardson Brown
I sometimes joke (in full earnest) that Mark Yaconelli ruined my youth ministry career. “Ruined” is probably an overstatement. However, in truth, hearing him speak for two days out of his book Contemplative Youth Ministry so changed my heart on what it means to do youth ministry that I could no longer be the same person or pastor I once had been. If I take the longview, this was tremendous blessing. But the blessing did not come without a great deal of pain and loss and frustration.
It’s hard to translate one of the most important experiences of your professional life into language that makes sense to church boards, youth ministry volunteers, and personnel committees. I made many mistakes trying to help others see why I was so on fire for a new way of doing things. I’m sure I hurt people in my zeal, though that was never my intent. It’s just that I had seen the mountaintop—and I wanted everyone else to see it, too, even if they weren’t ready. And when everyone else “didn’t get it” (near as I could tell), I probably made even more mistakes trying to fix it all and make everybody happy.
I’m thinking about all of this today because I’m re-reading parts of Yaconelli’s book to help me as I work with a wonderful church on developing a congregation-led children’s and youth ministry. Today I read some pages about anxiety as it applies to people and as it applies to the church, and I am caught up again in the truth of Yaconelli’s words. The ones below are worth sharing here in full:
Anxiety is the inability to be present. It’s a state of agitation in which we lose our larger capacity to empathize, to love, to respond to the needs of others. When we’re anxious we become squirrel-like—nervous and wary, teeth chattering, eyes scanning for danger, muscles spring-loaded, waiting to scamper up the nearest tree at every sound. Anxiety comes from words that denote “to choke.” When we’re anxious we can’t breathe. We feel like closing in, leaving fewer and fewer choices. We find ourselves unable to discern real fears from reactive worry. We lose patience, and we’re unable to trust. We get suspicious, distancing ourselves from others, ourselves, and even God. We become lost in our heads, caught up in fearful thoughts and calculations. Our minds oscillate between the future and the past. We worry about what should have happened or fear what might take place. In anxiety we lose touch with what’s driving us. Our actions become self-protective, reactive, and compulsive. (Contemplative Youth Ministry, 35)
So there’s that….
Yaconelli argues that far too often the response of adults to youth is one of anxiety, that churches in general are anxious places, especially when they’re worried about declining membership and budgets and staff. I’d add that anxiety happens when parents are worried about their children—and perhaps rightfully so—worried that drugs, sex, or alcohol will determine a child’s future over church or family. In both my professional and personal experience, I can assure you that there isn’t much in this world more formidable than a parent crazed with worry.
Anxiety drives people apart. It forces false wedges between hearts that are after the same thing and breeds a sense of needing to get “what’s mine” instead of cooperation, networking, and communal support. It creates “them” and “me,” imagining all sorts of trenches dividing us from one another. It fails to acknowledge anything bigger than ourselves at work and assumes that if everyone would just “Listen to me!” it would all be okay; if A, B, and C are done, then 1, 2, and 3 will follow.
In youth ministry, this manifests as “If you (the youth minister) will be entertaining enough, my child will go to church every Sunday and will therefore never do drugs.” This is a faulty equation at best.
At the end of the day, ministry—in all its forms—is about presence. And, as Yaconelli notes, you cannot be both anxious and present. We live in a world that needs more “being present.” No agenda. No ultimate goal. Just being…with each other. Just there…for one another.
God does not say to us, “Julie, do this and I’ll love you.” God just loves. God does not sit with us in order that we’ll do something for God in exchange. God just sits. God does not save us from the bad things—God walks with us through them. THIS is presence. Holy, sacred presence. And it is this that our people—our children, our youth, our adults—are starving for in our churches.
It seems to me that if we’d focus on the “being present”—getting our own egos out of the way and forgetting about the program for a while and simply listening to the souls around us—we’d come a great deal closer to being the Church God has called us to be. For all ages and stages of life.
Besides, the anxiety—collective and/or personal—isn’t going to get us anywhere good. So you know what? Let’s all just take a breath. Maybe two. And remember it isn’t all up to us anyway. So perhaps we could cut one another a little grace while we figure out—together—how it is we’ll move forward into whatever it is God’s calling us to be.
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